- The Washington Times - Monday, June 22, 2009

With each passing day, it’s becoming more and more obvious that the Washington Nationals have an impressive stable of young starting pitchers. Those five impressionable hurlers have drawn rave reviews, not only from within the organization but from opponents, too.

And with more help still on the way in the form of Stephen Strasburg, Collin Balester and another wave of starters in the system’s lower levels, it’s clear the Nationals are well-positioned in the pitching department for years to come. What has also become clear, though, is that this franchise is lacking impact offensive players. And until that is addressed, Washington is going to continue to have a difficult time escaping the NL East cellar.

For all the talk and all the roster moves they’ve made the past three years in an attempt to bolster their lineup, the Nationals remain woefully thin offensively. They’ve identified only two starting position players who are sure to be here in 2011: third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and catcher Jesus Flores.

The rest of the lineup features veterans with less than two years remaining on their contracts (Adam Dunn, Cristian Guzman, Nick Johnson) and unproven young players trying to establish themselves as pieces to the puzzle (Elijah Dukes, Josh Willingham, Anderson Hernandez).

Only a year ago, Washington’s rotation was in a similar predicament, but that was before this infusion of top-tier prospects. The organization doesn’t have nearly the same stable of position players waiting to crack the big leagues.

Look up and down the rosters at Class AAA Syracuse and Class AA Harrisburg. The pickings are slim at best. For every Justin Maxwell (perhaps the club’s best upper-level prospect), there are three Ryan Langerhanses (veterans trying to get another shot).

Plain and simple, there is no immediate help on the way for a Nationals lineup that needs immediate help. The current group has been averaging three runs a game the past month, and that number only will drop if and when Johnson and others are traded, as expected.

Even if acting general manager Mike Rizzo makes no significant moves before the July 31 trade deadline, his lineup still boasts a humongous hole in the middle of the diamond. This organization has been trying to find a permanent center fielder since it arrived in town; four years later, it still hasn’t identified one.

The Nationals’ lack of a true center fielder has become the franchise’s No. 1 dilemma, according to several team officials. It was once presumed the club would seek relief pitchers in exchange for its top tradable commodities, but Rizzo’s main target now is a center fielder who can cover ground and reach base on a consistent basis.

There are a couple of in-house candidates who could seize that role (Roger Bernadina once he’s healthy or Maxwell once he’s ready to hit big league pitching), but the Nationals know neither is a sure thing.

So as you gear up for trade rumor season, keep an eye and an ear out for available center fielders. You know what the Nationals also know: Help is needed in that department - preferably as soon as possible.

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